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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Storyteller from the Past

Paul Strand — Portrait of a Place

Paul Strand would make everybody's top 20 list of the most influential photographers in history, but for me personally he ranks considerably higher than the top 20. Paul Strand is the photographer who introduced me to the idea of storytelling. A major portion of his career was consumed with a style of photography I characterize as "portrait of a place." He went to interesting places, and didn't just show us the interesting place, but informed us about the interesting place. The first book of his that really captured my imagination was his portrait of the outer Hebrides islands in a book known as Tir a'Mhurain. Strand's photography, along with text by Basil Davidson, introduced us to a corner of the world in a way that was beyond mere armchair traveling. The intimacy of his photography gave us a sense that we actually knew the place. Whether we knew it completely, factually, or even comprehensively was of little significance. His project gave us a sense for the place that satisfies a certain nostalgic longing that he understood and captured in his images. His book Time in New England captures not only the feel of the place, but the spirit of the place.

Strand's work I find particularly inspirational on two distinct levels. Most importantly, the completeness of his work is crucial to his objective of storytelling. In every project that sets out introduces us to an interesting place, Strand includes not just the easy images of buildings, landscapes, and the local locale, but also makes connections with the people who live there. Every project includes a number of wonderful portraits, interiors, work and daily life. The combination of these human elements in addition to the inanimate objects he photographs gives us not just a sense of the place but a sense of being in the place, living in the place, growing up, working, and even dying in the place. His portraits include children, middle-aged householders, experienced workmen, and the elderly. It is this breadth of subject matter that I find inspirational.

Many photographers, I confess myself included, find it relatively easy to photograph inanimate objects — buildings, landscapes, architectural details, etc. One generally doesn't need permission, they don't talk back, and the investment of time is minimal. Traveling to an exotic location and connecting with people so that one can make meaningful portraits requires at the very least a rudimentary relationship with them. For a formal portrait, the subject's permission is required — in fact, more than permission it requires their participation. This means — gasp! — We have to talk to them, get to know them, persuade them to participate in our photographic project, risk rejection, confrontation, and even criticism. In my youth, this terrified me. It was Paul Strand and his portraits that convinced me that my terror of approaching people was simply unacceptable if I chose to pursue this kind of photography. Projects of this nature without including people tend to look sterile, unoccupied, even abandoned. In the submissions to LensWork we've reviewed many a project that looks more like a Hollywood movie set than an actual place where people live simply because there is no sign of life to be seen in any of the photographs. Paul Strand is a constant reminder that storytelling is best when it tells us about people rather than mere places.

The combination of image and text to tell a story dates back to the earliest days of photography with Henry Fox Talbot's Pencil of Nature. As a young and beginning photographer, I was not aware of that. Fine art photography was so dominated by the explorers — Ansel Adams, et al. — it had never occurred to me that image and text was a possibility. Discovering Paul Strand's  Tir a'Mhurain and Time in New England were door-openers that not only introduced me to the idea of image and text combinations, but provided the necessary permission to violate the advice I had already heard in my budding career that any photograph that needs text really needs to be a better photograph. Strand's photographs are simply wonderful, but adding the text to them changes his project from photographic braggadocio to the humility of a storyteller. Strand is not nearly so interested in bragging about his photographic skills as he is making sure that you understand and connect to the people and the places he portrays.

There is another odd inspiration that came from Paul Strand that requires a little background. The Art Institute of Chicago held a major retrospective Strand's work which I was fortunate enough to view during one of my regular business trips to the Windy City. I was eager to see Strand's original prints because his books had been such an important part of my photographic education. I was more than dismayed at the exhibition when virtually every one of his prints were dark, muddy, and generally looked 3 to 5 stops underexposed. If only a few of the images had been that way, I might have discounted them as inferior prints. Because every single image in the hundred plus exhibition were printed equally dark, I was confused and baffled about what I had seen. Some years later this was explained in a wonderful biography of Paul Strand written by Walter Rosenblum. He relates the tale of attending a meeting of the Photo League in New York. Afterwards he and a few other photographers were invited to return with Strand to his New York apartment to view additional prints. Strand arranged a straight-back kitchen chair to serve as easel for the photographs and then clamped an intense 100 watt bulb to the back of the chairs so that it would shine directly down onto the prints from a distance of a few inches. Rosenblum relates how the prints, oppressively dark in normal lighting, simply came alive under that intense illumination. Suddenly the exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago made perfect sense. It also provided a lasting lesson about the importance of thinking not just about the prints we make but the conditions under which they will be seen. Strand's assumptions about the lighting that would be used to illuminate his photographs may have been correct from his point of view, but thoroughly failed to take into account the real-world conditions under which his prints might eventually be viewed. Years later this idea was confirmed by John Sexton and Stu Levy who provided me invaluable instruction about controlled lighting conditions under which to view and judge my wet prints in the darkroom, a lesson I carried forward even when evaluating inkjet prints today.